Ornette Coleman celebrated his 80th birthday a couple of days ago.
Photograph by Juan-Carlos Hernandez
For many devoted listeners, his original quartet remains the standard by which to assess the music of his other groups. Here is a clip of that band reunited in 1987 for a festival in Spain. Don Cherry is the trumpeter, Charlie Haden the bassist, Billy Higgins the drummer. Coleman’s solo is a fine example of his ability to improvise little melodies that are sometimes more fetching than the tunes he writes.YouTube has three other pieces of video from that concert. To find them, go here.
But what Ornette most stands for through his music and fascinating, philosophical inquiries (several of them are included in my book Miles Ornette Cecil – Jazz Beyond Jazz) is humanism and essentialism that dispenses with encrusted thinking. He is an idealist — and we need a few more of those — who has inspired musicians and listeners alike get underneath superficialities to discover the basics and basis of sound. He encourages people to connect with their creative powers regardless of formal training (which is too often just training in formalities). He is a genuinely free spirit — the kind of artist America produces every now and then who could hardly come from anywhere else. He embraces new technologies but he does so firmly grounded in what humans have done since time immemorial. Don’t be put off by his reputation — his music speaks to open-minded listeners very directly, though it cannot be mistaken for being anyone else’s. He is extremely generous with his gifts, without showing the least pretense about his art.